Priscilla and I spent the weekend around Homer, Alaska as part of the Year of Travel challenge. It’s beautiful here.
One thing that stood out to us is how different Alaska’s social safety net programs are in a way that provides some good lessons for the rest of our country.
Alaska has a form of basic income called the Permanent Fund Dividend. Every year, a portion of the oil revenue the state makes is put into a fund. Rather than having the government spend that money, it is returned to Alaskan residents through a yearly dividend that is normally $1000 or more per person. That can be especially meaningful if your family has five or six people.
This is a novel approach to basic income in a few ways. First, it’s funded by natural resources rather than raising taxes. Second, it comes from conservative principles of smaller government, rather than progressive principles of a larger safety net. This shows basic income is a bipartisan idea.
Seeing how Alaska put this dividend in place reminded me of a lesson I learned early at Facebook: organizations think profoundly differently when they’re profitable than when they’re in debt. When you’re losing money, your mentality is largely about survival. But when you’re profitable, you’re confident about your future and you look for opportunities to invest and grow further. Alaska’s economy has historically created this winning mentality, which has led to this basic income. That may be a lesson for the rest of the country as well.
Another example of basic income in Alaska are the Native Corporations. We had dinner with some Alaska Natives in Anchorage and they explained to us how their system is different from Native American reservations in the lower 48 states. In Alaska, native land is owned and developed by private corporations, which are run and owned by Alaska Natives. These corporations also pay out annual dividends to their shareholders, who are largely natives, based on the resources they develop. So if you’re an Alaska Native, you would get two dividends: one from your Native Corporation and one from the state Permanent Fund.
Alaska has other novel social programs, like the way they support subsistence fishing. Every year, the state dumps baby salmon into rivers and bays. The salmon swim to the ocean, grow up, and then return, which ensures that locals have plenty of salmon to catch and support their families. We went with a group of locals to watch them catch salmon with a dip net, and they each caught six salmon within an hour. That’ll be enough to feed their families for a couple of weeks.
When you think about the way they support subsistence fishing as a safety net program, it has some interesting properties. First, a common issue with safety net programs is stigma for participating, but here everyone we met was proud of this — both for its cultural heritage and for the individual accomplishment of catching and preparing their salmon. Second, most effective safety net programs create an incentive or need to work rather than just giving a handout. Supporting subsistence fishing does this implicitly because you have to work to get the fish and clean them afterwards, but it also ensures you’ll have the food you need if you put in the effort.
These are just a few examples that stood out to us about how Alaska’s social programs could inspire improvements across the country. There’s a lot more to this place that maybe I’ll post about later. I definitely recommend coming here in the summer if you get a chance. It’s absolutely beautiful and having the sun stay up until 11pm is a great experience.